Opening up trips for those with special travel needs

On safari in South Africa with Accessible Travel and Leisure.

On safari in South Africa with Accessible Travel and Leisure.

Val Baynton talks to GTOs who specialise in planning holidays for groups of people with a range of special personal needs.

Alongside planning the usual elements of a day out or holiday  – transport, visits to attractions and destinations, accommodation and refreshments – GTOs working with groups of people who use wheelchairs, who require physical support or who live with mental health or other specific emotional problems have to take other factors into consideration to ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. In speaking to GTOs involved with three different types of such groups, we learnt more about the complexity of their experiences, how they find suitable destinations and accommodation, and discovered a number of specialist suppliers ready to help meet their particular needs.Though making the arrangements and ensuring the trips go smoothly is a challenging task, the rewards in enabling people to enjoy group travel experiences are clearly significant.


Dave and Debbie Jepson

Dave and Debbie Jepson.

Based in North Wales, Dave and Debbie Jepson have more than 25 years of experience in organising holidays for wheelchair users. In setting themselves up as organisers of small group holidays, Dave and Debbie drew on years of experience. Dave formerly worked as overseas tour manager for Winged Fellowship, organising their European holidays as part of the charity’s mission to provide short breaks and holidays, as well as respite care, for disabled people and carers. Debbie was a volunteer carer helping on the breaks – and this was how she met Dave.

When Winged Fellowship’s direction changed (it’s now known as Revitalise) and they stopped running overseas holidays, Dave was made redundant. He and Debbie, however, were encouraged by the many friends they’d made to carry on organising a holiday or two for their wheelchair user friends and this has blossomed into Makin’ Tracks. Debbie explains, ‘We said, “we’d do it for one year and see how it goes”, and here we are, nine years and two children later, still organising holidays.’ Dave adds, ‘We do it because we love it.’ Dave’s insider knowledge of European cities and fluency in languages is key to their success, and Debbie’s degree in Travel and Tourism has been very helpful too.

Dave is extremely hands-on and can apply his huge knowledge of each destination, its culture and history, and a sensitive approach to accessibility issues to ensure each group discovers a place to the full. Breaks regularly take place in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Germany, and this year’s programme has included Rome and Sorrento in Italy, and Northern Greece.

Dave Jepson explains the view to the group on this year’s trip to Italy.

Dave Jepson explains the view to the group on this year’s trip to Italy.

The outline itinerary is made in advance, with hotels and activities requiring advance tickets booked, and fine tuning takes place in the week before the tour. Dave drives out alone from the UK in his specially adapted minibus, taking out a wealth of equipment including hoists, which he then stores at the hotel to use as required. The first task is to check the bedrooms are all suitable. Next, he explores the area thoroughly, visiting restaurants, checking toilets and working out accessible routes. He says, ‘Experience has shown me that it is best to do these checks and bookings close to our tours because then our needs and the access complications are fresh in everyone’s mind – including mine!’

He adds that it is important to remain flexible throughout the time away, as he tailors the holiday to suit the abilities, specific interests and ages of each member of the group to take in both academic and more general approaches to information and, during the holiday, he will change the programme to suit an individual’s needs. He sees each trip as an ‘unfolding story’, so the order that attractions are visited in is important; he believes, for instance, it’s best to go to Pompeii and to Herculaneum before a follow-up visit to the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

When arriving at a city, he tries to drive in on a route that allows a panorama view to whet his group’s appetite for what’s in store, and with a small vehicle he can get close in to city centres too. In Florence, for example, large coaches have to drop off a mile out of the centre, but his minibus can get right up to the pedestrianised areas, which is, of course, essential for wheelchair users. Dave also plans routes to avoid driving the same roads twice and plays appropriate music on the minibus to give a subtle background to the trip. Dave stresses, ‘The one thing I avoid is seeing the tour as a list of places to be ticked off. I want to do things well and ensure the group enjoys the whole experience.’

A delicious lunch is served during the Makin’ Tracks Italian holiday this year.

A delicious lunch is served during the Makin’ Tracks Italian holiday this year.

Sorrento has been a popular destination over the last two years. This year, the group stayed in the Hilton Sorrento Place hotel – with fully accessible bedrooms including roll-in showers – and trips included the stunning Amalfi Drive, a ferry to the Isle of Capri, a trip to Pompeii and Naples as well as time to explore Sorrento itself. Meals were taken in the hotel and in restaurants in the town. The one part of the holiday Debbie and Dave regret that they are not able to include are air flights as the cost of ATOL regulation is too great for them. However, the upside is that people can fly from whichever regional airport is most convenient for them and the Jepsons will help identify the best and cheapest options. For further information, visit


Carol Sargent and Jo Harris work in the East Midlands and run MindforYou for those living with dementia and their carers. Jo is a community psychiatric nurse and for the past 20 years has specialised in working with older adults. Carol has experience with dementia through supporting her mother and mother-in-law and as a befriender for the Alzheimer’s Society. This changed her perspective and career path from a scientist to establishing MindforYou with Jo, after being unable to find suitable holidays that offered support for her parents.

Carol Sargent ­(front left) with a MindforYou group.

Carol Sargent ­(front left) with a MindforYou group.

Carol found that most existing holiday support for people living with dementia and their carers was of a respite nature and was targeted at the person with the illness, who is then isolated from their carer, which can have negative effects on both people in the dementia partnership. She and Jo set up MindforYou to offer holidays to people living with dementia and their carers in relaxed, dementia-friendly environments, with experienced and compassionate support staff – so that both the person living with dementia and the carer can relax, meet new people and be supported by professionals.

The holiday breaks take place in Scotland, the Peak District, Norfolk, Leicestershire and Yorkshire, and are for groups of up to 12 people. As part of ensuring holidays are as dementia-friendly as possible, Carol or Jo assesses each property beforehand. Carol explains, ‘We make sure that accommodation has a simple layout, ensuite bathrooms, good lighting and accessibility, and we reduce or eliminate any potential hazards such as rugs. Where possible, we provide assistive technology – for example dementia clocks giving the day and month as well as the time.’ The timing of the trips is important too; they run from Sunday or Monday for five nights, so that each couple can settle in and then return home before the weekend to get back into a routine before the start of the next week.

The break begins as soon as people leave home, as Carol and Jo include personalised transport options and, if required, a travel companion to assist on the journey. This is an important part of each holiday, and every break can also be tailored to suit the needs of each couple. Jo continues, ‘MYTime is available during all of our activities and gives the carer the opportunity to choose how they want to spend their time. For example, during their trip to Norfolk this year, a group enjoyed a nostalgic steam ride on the North Norfolk Railway and then one of the carers explored old haunts in Sheringham while his wife went shopping with one of our experienced staff.’


Enjoying a MindforYou holiday.

This year, three successful holidays in Norfolk, Pitlochry and the Peak District have taken place so far. Part of the holidays is providing support to allow people to do things they would normally be unable to do; in the Peak District, staff helped a couple in their 80s travel up the Heights of Abraham cable car! Meeting like-minded people is also an important aspect of the work that MindforYou does, with people on their holidays saying that they felt as though they had ‘found a second family’.

Carol and Jo are working with Loughborough University to generate evidence of the benefits of a supported holiday and to give people living with dementia the confidence that they are still able to have an enjoyable holiday together. Additionally, MindforYou aim to use the information to make the case for carers of people living with dementia to have one week’s paid holiday a year. Carol says, ‘Jo and I have been overwhelmed by the feedback from people who have been on our holidays so far, and the responses of each group have been humbling, with everyone wanting to re-book in the future.’ For further information, visit


Ally Ward.

Ally Ward.

Ally Ward has been Courses Manager for leading spinal cord injury charity, Back Up, for seven years. Previously, she was Princes Trust Team Leader at Warwickshire College, where she led 12-week personal development courses for young people aged 16 to 25, designed to boost confidence and gain qualifications.

Back Up helps thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds rebuild their confidence and independence after a devastating spinal cord injury. Ally’s role includes planning and managing residential courses for groups of people with spinal cord injury from all over the UK and Northern Ireland. In most cases, she supports people to make their own travel arrangements but she also organises annual courses and the group travel arrangements to a winter park in Colorado and a ski school in Sweden. Her goal is to encourage participants to see that life doesn’t have to stop because they’re paralysed. Spaces are based on individual applications and places are allocated to those with the greatest need. Ally explains, ‘Our aim is for people to realise they can still do activities and even take up new ones. By trying things out in a supported group situation – such as art and crafts, abseiling, flying or skiing – we aim to give people the confidence to go on to do these things with families and friends or on their own.’

Part of a group enjoying a winter adventure  with Back Up.

Part of a group enjoying a winter adventure
with Back Up.

The participants on these courses can be wheelchair users and some participants have no movement below the shoulders and require breathing assistance. This means there are many logistical issues to be thought through for each course. Back Up groups also take part in activity courses at the Calvert Trust centres in Exmoor and the Lake District, which are led by Back Up’s trained volunteers. There are specific courses at these centres each year for people aged under 18 and over 50.

Over 20 adults travel each year to take part in Back Up’s ski courses in Sweden and the USA, and Ally works with Meon Valley Travel in Petersfield, Hampshire, to organise hotels and flights. She says, ‘Their support is invaluable in getting the best deals, and in providing back up when flights are delayed or cancelled. This can be a particular issue when flying to and from snowy destinations, and it’s good to have the Meon Valley team’s support in emergency situations.’

Even though the support from the Meon Valley team is important, Ally thinks that it is still essential to make direct contact with the manager and staff at the airline to make sure all are totally aware of the needs of the group. ‘This prevents possible breakdowns in communication that can cause issues,’ she explains. For further information, visit


Across Europe, there are campaigns to improve accessibility for all tourists. In 2013 and 2014, VisitEngland ran a pilot project, Access for All, with the destinations of Bath, Leicestershire and NewcastleGateshead, to develop and promote each destination for visitors with access needs. Deemed successful, the initiative has been expanded and, since October 2014, VisitEngland has partnered with seven further destinations – Kent, Birmingham, Lincoln, Northumberland, the Peak District and Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Brighton.

The launch of Tourism Disability Access Day  in Edinburgh.

The launch of Tourism Disability Access Day in Edinburgh.

Another initiative, Disabled Access Day, first took place on 17th January 2015 and saw 200 organisations across the UK encourage disabled people, their friends and families to visit somewhere new to raise the profile of what was on offer. Amongst attractions taking part was the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh (see above), which promoted their hand-held tablet for deaf and hard of hearing visitors, their audio guides for visually impaired visitors and the wheelchair access provision throughout the yacht. The next Disabled Access Day is 12th March 2016. In the meantime, in September, VisitEngland will launch a national marketing campaign to showcase what is on offer for visitors with access needs.

Across the channel, Germany has also been campaigning for disabled provision and the Barrier-Free campaign by the national tourist office highlights the extent of choice on offer through the country for people living with a disability, whether a wheelchair user or partially or fully deaf or blind.


Those groups with very specific needs will often require the services of operators or organisations used to dealing with particular types of requirement. Here are a few ideas.

Tourism for All UK is a national charity dedicated to making tourism welcoming to all and overcoming barriers that might prevent older people, wheelchair users, carers of young or older people or those living with illnesses from participating in tourism. The website provides information about the charity, and outlines advice and assistance that can be offered to businesses, and the linked website gives comprehensive accessible tourism information on places to stay, visit, eat and drink, and activities and events, in the UK.

CanalAbility in Essex is an established charity with over 20 years experience dedicated to providing affordable canal boat holidays and day trips in the UK for people with disabilities and their families, friends and other community groups.

A group on a wildlife photography holiday with Go Provence.

A group on a wildlife photography holiday with Go Provence.

In France, Go Provence specialises in running rewarding, fun and safe holidays for adults and children with learning disabilities in the Gorges du Verdon in Provence. Typically holidays combine outdoor adventures, excursions and relaxation, with trained and professional staff providing high levels of support for each group member.

Accessible Travel and Leisure of Gloucester is a specialist tour operator providing holiday accommodation and holidays that are accessible to wheelchair users, and those less mobile or who travel with carers. Holidays take place worldwide and include many different types such as skiing, river and ocean cruising, and safari trips in South Africa.


All three groups we spoke to have had some disappointing experiences due to the specific access needs of their groups. Ally Ward and David and Debbie Jepson both say that airlines provide a bad service to wheelchair users. Individual staff are extremely helpful but the system itself is poor. Every other type of transport – train, coach, ferry – has to make provision for people to stay in a wheelchair but airlines do not. This means that wheelchair users are manually lifted from their own chair into a smaller chair that can access a plane’s aisle and then the person is manually lifted again into their allocated seat. Ally has spent time with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Working Group to try to improve the experience of disabled people at airports, which, she says, has been a successful initiative.

David Jepson also comments that, when new hotels are built, accessible bathrooms are often created by taking space from the bedroom so the overall unit size of accommodation is maintained. This means there might be room for only one bed and therefore the carer cannot support their wheelchair user in the night and has to stand the cost of an additional room.

Parts of Spain provide good accessibility – for example, since the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona has vastly improved its understanding of wheelchair user needs. Other countries have pockets that provide good facilities, but it seems, Dave observes, to be down to how local authorities are prepared to enforce EU directives.

Carol Sargent points to the lack of staff specifically trained and experienced at supporting people living with dementia as being one of the main issues in making tourism accessible for all.